Texts by and about Natives: Commentary
10. Duane Niatum: "Son, This is What I Can Tell You"
There is an important place in literary history for editors and collectors of writings as well as for writers themselves, and Duane Niatum is both an important editor and writer. He has earned a solid reputation with his poems, short stories, and essays, publishing Ascending Red Cedar Moon in 1969 and steadily publishing since. He also has searched out and encouraged young writers as he edited significant anthologies of Native American writing, including the harbinger of the “Indian Renaissance,” Carriers of the Dream Wheel, and the well-read Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry.
Born Duane McGinness in Seattle to the Salishan tribe, Niatum took on his maternal great-grandfather’s Indian name and, so far as he could, gave himself over to his ancestors’ world. At one level this caused him trouble. He resisted authority and was incarcerated three times in his youth, once in a reform school in Martinez, California, and twice in Seattle’s Youth Service Center. At another level, Niatum gained stability through his distaste for modernity, studying, in the Salishan way, the animals, plants, and land forms around him, finding in fishing and hunting a respite from trouble—his parents’ divorce and his own father’s abandonment of the family. From the time Niatum was four until he joined the navy at seventeen, he studied Native ways with his grandfather. He learned to identify clams by the holes they made in the sand and to tell, through the year, the birds, trees, and plants as they changed.
This close observation shows in his poetry. If a place needs a poet to understand itself, as Wendell Barry argues, the Northwest needs Duane Niatum. He knows where he is. But other places informed him as well. Like other Northwestern artists such as Morris Graves and Gary Snyder, Niatum was inspired by the years he spent in Japan. The control and restraint of that country’s art informed him as he took on other inspirations. He studied at the University of Washington with Theodore Roethke and his protégé, Nelson Bentley. He also studied with Elizabeth Bishop and Leonie Adams, both of whom taught in Seattle as the university brought in strong poetry faculty following Roethke’s death in 1963. As Niatum had earlier composed an elegy to his grandfather, he later composed a sonnet sequence in honor of Theodore Roethke. Niatum also took the encouragement Susan Sontag gave him to study European culture.
Duane Niatum’s images, therefore, are readable through a number of lenses. He calls on the totemic animals of his tribe, informing his readers with the Northwest’s oldest stories. His short story “Crow’s Sun” is comparable to D'Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded as a lesson in how an animist spirituality sustains a youth in trouble with Christian society. Niatum is a superb craftsman in the long traditions of English-language poetry, and he is a social activist as well. One thus finds in Niatum a multi-leveled poet and, consequently, a superb editor, for he sees in other authors all the well-honed tricks and arts of the writer’s trade.